PDF Bach: The Goldberg Variations (Cambridge Music Handbooks) 2001

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In the case of No. Published in , it must have been the last to be composed, musically the most modern of the six.

Glenn Gould plays Bach - The Goldberg Variations, BMV 998 (Zenph re-performance)

This is a topic worth exploring elsewhere, but several details are suggestive. I doubt if all the scope, all the levels of variety in the Six Partitas have yet been recognized. For example, one can long be familiar with No. But in any case, the Six Partitas are not merely collections of clever ideas or, in the case of No. If this is a coincidence, it is a remarkable and very musical one! Not the least interesting detail here is the specifying of two manuals.


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This was not because they are necessary, as with organ trios; nor are they for the sake of a melody in long notes that has somehow to stand out, as with organ chorales; nor are they practically desirable for hand-crossing, as in the Goldberg though there they are not absolutely obligatory either, as modern pianists know. In those transcriptions, the composer or a copyist might occasionally write in f and p signs to draw attention to echo passages, meanwhile leaving it also quite practical if one did happen to have a two-manual instrument, that is to change manuals for other reasons — such as to distinguish the tutti themes from the solo episodes typical of Italian concertos.

Humour, perhaps, or pedantry? And yet, despite such conceptual similarities as these, nowhere does the Italian Concerto have the effortless, seemingly thoughtless, caprice of Venetian concertos, and it is unlikely ever to be mistaken for one of them. Nor vice-versa. Although many details in their respective sources suggest that the C minor was the earlier version, being transposed for — and probably just before — the print, the reason for the transposition is not obvious.

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But it must have been compelling, since to most players the C minor version feels more idiomatic and comfortable. And, since both C and B minor could be seen as typically French keys for such a suite, B minor may have been simulating another French characteristic and one familiar in Dresden at the time: the taste for extra-low pitch, a semitone lower than ordinary chamber-music pitch of the time.

There is another point about the presumed transposition. One Partita in C minor was already in print, so there was no need for another. Is it possible that two C minor works were conceived at much the same time and meant to be different in the styles they allude to, thus giving the composer the idea of a more complete contrast between Italian and French styles for a later publication — as in fact turned out to be the case?

Had they been exceptional and fortunate enough to have three manuals at their disposal, they could certainly have found ways to use all three in the opening and closing movements, although the composer does not specify them. Bach and other composers is not supported by unmistakable and positive evidence, and seems against musical common sense.

The pieces of Part III were probably being composed over the period —9. Then there was other contemporary organ music, including that of minor composers.

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At least four major agendas are being played out here. This is a recital-plan such as one eye-witness of the period describes Bach as following in Leipzig, though the publication itself could have established such plans. The smaller chorales, though not necessarily easier to play than the larger, could also have served as devotional music at home. Thirdly, the music itself ranges from quasi-Palestrinian counterpoint stile antico to quasi-galant chamber trios, from French and Italian idioms to traditional German-Lutheran counterpoint, and as such offered a range of stylistic models or lessons for any composer.

There, perhaps, lies a problem with the volume: one senses a calculated theoretical, didactic or even doctrinaire component to it. An aim of the volume was to include elements of French, Italian and traditional German organ music, with the texts in German but drawing on Latin and Greek originals.

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We should not forget that in his new volume Bach must also have been responding to himself — to his earlier organ music and its various approaches to setting chorale-melodies for organ. And rather than the easy melody of some other early chorales, or the terse drama of many a youthful chorale-harmonization, we now have an earnest, spacious, almost distant majesty of expression, sometimes rich and dense, sometimes deft and light, sometimes calculated and always free of whimsy.

These are, after all, organo pleno or Full Organ music of a kind seldom found in such a key as this before equal temperament. The very difference between them was unusual for a pair of keyboard books of the time, perhaps unique. Whatever the precise dating of the Goldberg Variations — composed over to , engraved during , on sale at the Leipzig Michaelmas Fair ?

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About that time too Anna Magdalena copied the Goldberg Aria into her keyboard album, either from the print or from another, now lost copy by the composer. Strange, if the whole thing was already or about to be available at the time — perhaps the variations were beyond her, and it was the Aria she liked? Essercizi is an equivalent of Ubungen, 28 Background and genesis and it is a curious coincidence that the volume contains thirty highly characterized sonatas, the last one contrapuntally ingenious.

But still, it cannot be out of the question that the Goldberg was in part a response to that not very clearly organized book of Scarlatti, whose fabulous musicianship and playing technique are nevertheless clear enough from it. A second idea is that since the canon at the ninth No.

More than one writer has thought that there are very good reasons for having nine canons see below, p. But there is no evidence whatever for dating this version, whose title is Prelude. One could not make such points about other variations then in print, by Handel, Couperin and Rameau, to name only the best.

The Goldberg Variations for harpsichord have more in common with the Canonic Variations for organ than with the early Aria variata.

Bach: The Goldberg Variations

The symmetry is there to be seen on paper and is probably more theoretical than practical: it need not mean that if one timed a performance of all the music, those pieces would hit the halfway point. But note that if this organization around a kind of musical pivot is not accidental — and it is hard to see quite how it could be — several things would follow. But how can that be? But such points could also work against supposing an allusion to BACH. Ten for the Commandments decem canones — if not, why not?

If so, why? Whether as a set they were originally composed or compiled earlier — before or after the Goldberg — is not known, however, or whether they were intended for publication in a revised edition of the variations. Although two of the fourteen canons survive in other copies, this is the only known grouping of them as a set, here a fair copy presumably made from an earlier draft.

To write a canon above a given bass-line may sound supererogatory — the bass is an extra factor for the composer to take into account as he composes — but in fact this framework, if of such a basic type, is a help. Clearly, some of these items of musical vocabulary also appear in the Goldberg Variations, but on a bigger scale.

Of course, it is the harmonies underlying the Aria that serve as the basis for the variations, thirty distinct essays exploring the language and genres of music as its composer understood them. Perhaps some players or listeners fancy that in the course of the thirty movements they do hear the original melody of the Aria now and then, but I for one do not and can only assume that one is not meant to: we have here variations or varied treatments not of a melody but of a series of chords, which are explored in a series of discrete genres and according to a uniquely ingenious plan.

At this point, the focus is more on its bass-line and the harmonies produced by it. It appears to begin on the downbeat, in both Aria and all the variations. In general terms, such a bass has a vast pedigree stretching back to various ground-basses circulating widely in the sixteenth century. All of these are explicitly diatonic — a simple framework of tonics and dominants, with perfect cadences — so much so as to suggest either that they helped establish the key-system of western music, or that the natural logic of the key-system made them inevitably popular and useful. It is as if the Goldberg theme had begun as four notes, then became eight, then sixteen, then thirty-two.

Example 3 a Johann Christoph Bach, Sarabande. Bach — was already creating a sixteen-bar theme from the opening formula, with repeats perhaps misunderstood by the later copyist. The plan could hardly be simpler and is easily preserved even when for three variations it moves to the minor, ensuring a compulsive logic throughout thirty-two movements, a monument to the natural strength of diatonicism as it had evolved. It would seem to be out of the question that Bach knew nothing of these various traditions and that his theme is 38 Overall shape entirely free of any allusion to them.

I imagine this was deliberate, and Bach cannot have been the only composer to feel that such a common-property bass required him to make an original gesture with it. In this respect the Purcell ostinato song Example 3 e is particularly striking, being a kind of reverse of the Bach approach, for it actually reduces the number of bars from eight to seven , telescoping the second half to produce a charming and original version typical of its composer.

The differences of tempo in the Aria variata are not very pronounced and are mostly, as with Corelli, a matter of different tempo-signs and an articulation to match. There was really no precedent for this, common though it has since become. Thus one can speak of two shapes for the Goldberg, a perceptual and a conceptual. Perceptually, the movements proceed by way of great contrast and change, reach several kinds of semi-climax en route particularly the French Overture in the middle , sink in the pathos of the long G minor Variation No.

Conceptually, however, there is a more static pattern, and one neither easily perceptible nor strictly transient, since it is always there on paper to be grasped. The thirty variations are made up of ten groups of three, in which a dance or clear genre-piece such as a fughetta is followed by an arabesque-like movement bright, usually requiring crossed hands on two manuals and this by a canon created at successively rising intervals. The thirty variations are built up from a series of these threes which do not, of themselves, either create or remove tension: some are harder to play than others, but the gentlest might be some of the most intricate from a contrapuntal point of view.

The plan-of-three is disguised by the fact that some canons do not sound particularly canonic Variation No. Nor, with one exception No. Perhaps the composer consciously broke the pattern to avoid too neatly calculated a scheme, or to make sure that the work begins and ends energetically, irrespective of any scheme.

A glance at the time-signatures alone suggests how maximum change is rung between movements. For example, the nine canons use eight different time-signatures, and the two that share -time surely do so with a different tempo No. Certain not very pronounced similarities may be found between these movements and other virtuoso music of the period from Rameau to Philipp Emanuel Bach s—s , and to this extent these of all movements suggest the composer to be deliberately working in up-to-date idioms — or trying to, as far as his personal taste would permit.

Nevertheless, there are certain parallels between the Goldberg and these sets, made probably some thirty years earlier. Thus the sixtytwo variations, HWV oldest copy c. By , the work had been published in four printed editions, two of them in Amsterdam. And in No. But presumably the Sarabande with twelve variations by J. Bach see Example 3 had long been known to his younger relative, even serving to suggest how a longer theme might be made of this bass, and prompting him to develop variations of a more careful, original and intricate kind.


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